Pierce on Velmet (2020)

Velmet, Aro. Pasteur’s Empire: Bacteriology and Politics in France, its Colonies, and the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. xi + 306, ISBN: 978-0-19-007282-7

Aro Velmet situates bacteriology and imperialism as deeply intertwined—materially, discursively, and politically. This mutually constitutive entanglement, Velmet argues, serves as a crucible for the distillation of a logics of “pastorization” (5). Velmet’s “o” not only differentiates the term from the “pasteurization” of Latourian canonicity, but also points only obliquely to Louis Pasteur himself. The term more emphatically gestures to broader networks of imagining, doing, and teaching bacteriological science cultivated by Pastorians—Pasteur’s students and followers. “Pastorization” comprises a “model of microbial management” tethered to politics on the one hand and technologies—from the minutiae of laboratory equipment to large-scale infrastructure for implementing mass-vaccination programs—on the other (5). As we learn, pastorization and bacteriology rest on unstable ground. Crucially, diverse actors and agents—from scientists, colonial administrators, and anti-colonial activists to laboratory animals and microbes—could shift the kinds of technopolitics pastorization might enable.

Velmet substantiates these claims by turning to an impressive number of primary sources, including documents from a wide-ranging set of archives. Readers follow the movement of ideas, people, microbes, and technologies between myriad locations in the French empire and beyond its bounds, to Lagos, New York, or Rio de Janeiro. Keeping mobility and multiple contexts within the frame underscores the author’s essential contention that Pastorians developed bacteriological strategies “on an abstract, generalized human body,” and “considered social, political, and ecological contexts essentially passive and unimportant”—aims whose consequences run deep in public health (220).

Pasteur’s Empire unfolds in seven chapters illuminating pastorization at work in responses to communicable diseases, efforts to transform foodways, and shifting conceptions of gender. Chapter one narrates Albert Calmette’s establishment of the first satellite Institut Pasteur in Saigon and his work there with Alexandre Yersin. The Saigon Institute’s very founding points to a reciprocal political-bacteriological nexus: the 1890 formation of the Colonial Health Service built infrastructure, but required scientific collaborators like Pastorians in the form of “standardized but locally embedded” institutions; at the same time, Pasteur could more widely distribute—and thereby legitimize—his still-controversial rabies vaccine (23). Studying responses to plague outbreaks of the 1890s, Velmet charts a telling gap between recommendation and practice. Pastorians ostensibly supported vaccination, disinfection through steam, and eliminating rats, technological solutions framed as “civilized” and “progressive”; yet on the ground, Pastorians relied on older, more violent techniques such as forced isolation and the burning of homes (19, 21). Chapter two follows pastorization into the spheres of intoxicants and commerce. Moving between analyses of rice wine and opium, and efforts to monopolize and microbially manage both industries, Velmet cogently elucidates the malleability of Pastorian rhetoric. In the case of rice wine, for example, Calmette centered a yeast he believed essential to production as the cornerstone of a new fermentation process. Pastorian fermentation was better suited to commercial production (faster and higher yields), designed with “hygienic and scientific rationality,” and tellingly labelled “pure” (55). Yet for many Vietnamese consumers, the final product was not rice wine at all; it was too high in alcohol, lacked key flavors, and caused troubling health consequences. Vietnamese consumers subsequently deployed the Pastorian rhetoric of “hygiene” and “purity” to reject the monopoly, highlighting the hypocrisy of a hygienic product causing illness.

Chapter three punctuates the volume with a sustained look at intersections of masculinity and bacteriological science between the colonies and the metropole. Velmet elaborates the self-conscious styling of scientific personae such as Émile Roux, Calmette, and Yersin. In addition to shaping debates around vital versus degenerating masculinity, we come to see how these actors’ choices forge new and sometimes contradictory ways of framing scientific practice.

The final four chapters coalesce around tuberculosis and yellow fever, and Pastorian efforts to develop and disseminate vaccines and sera to treat them. Chapter four explores longstanding associations between tuberculosis and overcivilization, and the consequences of such thinking within colonial medicine. Chapter five centers the bacillus Calmette-Guérin anti-tuberculosis vaccine, demonstrating how divergent actors articulated the vaccination’s safety or danger in specific political contexts and thereby challenged or supported the authority of the medical expert. Chapter six foregrounds the 1927 Dakar yellow fever outbreak. Although French officials and Syrian and Lebanese traders were more vulnerable to the disease than Dakarois, who often acquired childhood immunity, the harshest containment policies were disproportionately directed at Black Dakarois. We subsequently see local political leaders marshal pastorization to critique the racism embedded in these policies. The final chapter builds to consider several entangled yellow fever vaccine projects developed after 1927 by the Institut Pasteur and the Rockefeller Foundation. Here, the Pastorian ambition of the eminently portable and universal medical technology reaches its apex in the Laigret vaccine. Despite clear early signs of harmful side effects, multiple infrastructural and political contexts cohered to allow Pastorians to paper over these concerns.

While Velmet completed Pasteur’s Empire before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, its contributions only feel more pressing as I write in fall 2021. Many of the book’s contours resonate and refract in the politics and technologies currently unfolding across a global public health landscape. Facing plague outbreaks on the Indochinese border, politicians worried about quarantine’s effects on commerce. When the plague unexpectedly erupted in Nha Trang—where Yersin located his lab—the scientist feared that his own research on the causative agent of that disease might have inadvertently caused its spread. Opponents of Calmette’s anti-tuberculosis vaccine worried not only that evidence of the vaccine’s safety largely came from Calmette’s reputation (and not from what we might term a randomized controlled trial, which was beginning to emerge), but also that distributing it would subsequently “disrup[t] the complex network of trust and authority between the state and the public” (147-8). I by no means want to imply exact parallels across these historical moments. But it seems worth noting that we continue to contend with the legacy of these debates in an acute and protracted instance of a global public health crisis. Similar and often contentious discourse currently circulates around, for example, public trust in medical experts, or the uneven experience of harm within public health crises, or the entanglement of authority, politics, technology, and the arbitration of public health. Velmet’s scholarship becomes more urgent as we introspect and ask where we might go from here.

Kathleen Pierce
Smith College